Children’s choice

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Gender stereotyping needs to be tackled, but we shouldn’t take choice away from children in the process


Michael Pettavel

I had an earnest conversation with the children at nursery about gender last week. We had been part of a gender research project and this brought the topic into clearer focus. The recent reporting of the Welsh government’s new approach to school uniforms had come up (well, I had instigated it) and it was interesting to see what everyone’s opinion was.

I know from my own, adult children’s perspective that I have now reached the status of being of the age that I grasp simple concepts such as gender neutrality and non-binary with difficulty. I feel that this maybe more about the changing language rather than the intellectual concept, but that is another thing entirely.

Humans like to classify things, it helps us make sense of the world and, more often than not, my professional objections to stereotypical gender clothing are based in practicality. I have much the same opinion of ridiculous footwear or highly flammable dressing-up clothes.

There does seem to me a catch-22 for children. We allow relentless advertising, both soft and direct, in regards to their aspirations (thank goodness for the Women’s World Cup) and then expect them to show an interest in atypical gender stereotypes. Attempts by media companies to encourage positive gender images always seem to be rather condescendingly aimed at informing girls that they too can have a place in the professional world. You see less aimed at boys crossing gender stereotypes, moving into more socially focused life choices.

Children’s aspirations are examined in studies such as Drawing the Future (Education and Employers, 2018), which shows that little has changed. It states, ‘Conceptions of traditional femininity, specifically ideas around “nurturing” or “caring” roles, may also explain the difference in the number of girls wanting to become a teacher or doctor compared to boys.’

We did a recent poll asking all the children who were leaving to go to Reception class what they wanted to do when they were older. Of the 25 girls, we had 25 per cent fairies or princesses, 8 per cent police officers, artists and nurses. With the 22 boys we had 20 per cent superheroes with 10 per cent police officers and firefighters (we also had some nice touches, like the boy who said that when he had been to big school, then he would like a day off).

So, during my conversation about whether girls should be ‘made’ to wear trousers, I leave you with the words of one girl who said, ‘It depends, but I want to choose.’

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